Big Sur Part IV: Carmel-by-the-Sea

Big Sur Part IV: Carmel-by-the-Sea


    Day 4: Carmel-by-the-Sea

    Founded in 1902, Carmel by the Sea, or simply Carmel, is known as much for its scenic treasures as it is for its artistic history.  The name Carmel rolls off the tongue, reminding me of lozenges, sweet, gooey things that transform the palate into a sweet, thick oil.  Countless writers, visual artists, poets have made their home here and in 1906, ten years before it was incorporated into a city, the San Francisco Call estimated that sixty percent of its homes were constructed by people who had “devoted their lives to work connected with the arts.”  Impressive.  The area lured Robinson Jeffers, Steinbeck, and most notably, Clint Eastwood, its first celebrity mayor.  The area also attracted the likes of Jack London, the two Sinclairs, Upton and Lewis.  Ambrose Bierce stayed here, as did the “uncrowned king of bohemia,” George Sterling who arrived in Carmel to establish its literary base.  Robinson Jeffers hosted many a brilliant intellectual, literary artist and celebrity at his Tor House, including Sinclair Lewis, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Langston Hughes, Charles Lindhberg, George Gershwin, and even “the little tramp,” Charlie Chaplin.  What a list!  What fame?  Immortals.  Long after I’ve faded into oblivion, long after my name and my deeds have been forgotten, theirs will live on. 
     But I can’t think of any other place so at odds with the spirit of art.  The houses here, as in Big Sur, are overpriced, cottages fetching in the millions, mansions on the bluffs asking tens of millions, witty little bungalows with Spanish tiled roofs, stucco and Saltillo tiled driveways, glass walled sun decks with views of the ocean fetching for several millions of dollars.
    Perhaps because of its artistic roots, Carmel is a quirky city.  There’s even a law prohibiting women from wearing high-heeled shoes without a permit. The ground slopes, the sidewalks roil like waves, mimicking the nearby waters and so the law was passed to protect the city against lawsuits arising from women tripping over boils in the pavement or cracks and fissures.  Why can’t they just fix the walking paths? It seems natural decay is preferable to safety. But one doesn’t see much natural decay here, the pristine lawns bathe in happy sunlight, the wind sings arias in the trees, the shops beckon people to spend, spend, spend.  Materialism has trumped art.
    I don’t know what it was, but now Carmel is a rich person’s haven.  No longer the province of the Essalen Indians or the Ohlone, who pushed the Essalen South into the rugged mountains of Big Sur, no longer a place defined by religion. What it has retained of its past is its name, none of its spirit. Friar Sebastian Vizcaino’s patron saint, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, gave this city its name, but not its identity.  It was this unknown friar who claimed Carmel Valley for Spain in 1602: but rather than lay siege upon the land, the Spanish waited another one hundred and sixty-eight years before attempting to colonize the area.  And they did, building the first mission, Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo on June 3, 1770 in nearby Monterey.  Like all new colonies, they built simple mud structures topped with wood and straw, graduated to buildings built from pine and cypress, then finally to stone. Now it is concrete and blacktop. There are, as of today, no high rises.
    Carmel has successfully maintained its charm, for it is a charming place, a sweet place, quaint and proper, but it is also a place I can’t get away from fast enough. I feel sheepish here, insecure, my class shows in my posture, in my diminished capacity to ask for something as simple as a coffee.
    I park in a side street just off Ocean Avenue, in a space opposite Carmel plaza. Crossing the street and bounding up the big steps that lead to the second level shops, I am greeted with windows displaying goods I cannot afford.  Even a place which invites poets and artists cannot escape the lure of brands.  Tiffany, Tommy Bahama, Tumi.  Do I want to purchase a seven hundred dollar snakeskin wallet?  Do I really need a wristwatch that costs more than my Jeep?  Maybe I’ll buy Jessette a gift.  I enter Bottega Veneta and am struck by its decor.  Warm browns, marble floors, lots of glass and muted earthtones.  I am on alert.  I peruse the store, slowly, skulking.  I feel regarded, observed.  I check the ceiling for cameras and there it sits, a circle of black glass, a mute eye watching.  I step to the shelves displaying purses that look well made.  The leather has a stitched pattern, its thinness complimented by its suppleness.  I check the tag and my eyes enlarge.  I place it back and quickly and quietly leave.  How good must a purse before for its manufacturer to offer several thousand dollars for it?  I once saw a handmade purse in Florence, without a known “name,” made by an Albanian woman and it fetched for five dollars, given the exchange rate.  The wallet had artful little flaws, but the leather was thick, the seams taut.  Its flaws (it was slightly warped) gave the object a personality.  No two wallets she made were identical, though they resembled one another, like siblings sharing similar if not identical features.  Given my respect for handmade things (meals, books, furniture, etc.) there are no limits to how much I am willing to pay.  But brands don’t impress me (unless they are motorcycles or cars.)  We have been manipulated psychologically and emotionally to think that a “name” item conveys a greater sense of authority, bestows upon a person a denser perfume of success, than a non branded item.  We are made to believe that the branded item is better, and better for us.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Brands are hyped, marketed, and I wonder about authors and artists who have become brands themselves: Hemingway, the brand of terse, tough men, hiding their impotence; or, Faulkner, the brand of the deep South and fractured conscience; or, Stephen King, the first name in horror; or, Fitzgerald, the brand representing the upper crust and illusion. 
    Authors and artists have become things.  Their creations aren’t so much gifts to the world but packaged experiences.  It’s those artists who don’t fit neatly into categories, who are unmarketable that fail to achieve success.  Is Hemingway greater than his contemporary Ford Maddox Ford?  It’s a matter of opinion, or marketing dollars.  Is contemporary fiction writer Stephanie Meyer greater than Marilynne Robinson?  If book sales are any indication of greatness, then Marilynne is a failure.  But who can read sentences like, “Glyphs of crimped and plaited light swung across the walls and the ceiling,” from her debut novel Housekeeping, and not feel a measure of awe for its artistry?  Compare Meyer, who is about as adept as painting a scene as an infant watercolorist.  Thinking of Bob now: Perhaps Bob Shacochis’ troubles lie in not being a marketable brand, though his writing proves otherwise.  I believe one’s craft is important to develop, I believe in the power of words to persuade, I believe in writing.  If there any any tricks to becoming a better writer it is this: write, read, write. 
    But there is a trick, not quite prestidigitation (a word I learned from William Maxwell), to becoming a successful anything in life is this: make of yourself more than a man, make yourself into a symbol of a world view (words courtesy of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins).  I suppose the trick to being successful in any field is this: learn how to market yourself, learn how to be a product, become a thing that can be easily digested by the masses.  Package yourself in grand illusions.  Andy Warhol was as much a thing as a man, as was Picasso, as is Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton.  If you build your image around a sordid life of risk taking, failed choices, life lived off the beaten path, and there you have it, “Kerouackian” fame and its attending quality, immortality. These days, I feel (I know?), image is substance, surface is reality, depth is despised, questioned, argued over, picked apart, In the words of Marilynne Robinson again, this also from Housekeeping, “Everything that falls upon the eye is apparition, a sheet dropped over the world’s true workings.  The nerves and the brain are tricked, and one is left with dreams that these specters loose their hands from ours and walk away, the curve of the back and the swing of the coat so familiar as to imply that they should be permanent fixtures in the world, when in fact nothing is more perishable.” Nothing is more perishable than reality, except our dreams.
    We are marketed to. We have been convinced of an artist’s greatness because it helps sell his work.  Standards of art change; artists like brands go out of style.  I pass up Louis Vuitton.  I pass Mr. Fabulous and Georgiou.  It strikes me as odd that a place built on the spirit of art and independence, creativity and conscience, has devolved into a place where a pen can fetch twenty-thousand dollars. Capitalism has indeed run amok, on all levels.  I once saw a picture of an African child, sweltering in the heat of a raging summer, flies swarming his eyes.  He was wearing a Coca Cola t-shirt.     
    I am surprised to find galleries here: Raskin Gallery, Shoulders Photography Gallery.  On the third level there is the Carmel Arts and Film Festival, but, ironically, Homescapes Carmel sits not far from Wrath Wine Tasting Room. What a name, a good name, Wrath, for it is anything but anger I feel coming here; I feel, as I stated above, jittery, like a mechanical chicken wound too tight.
    I walk to the end of the boardwalk, then back to my Jeep.  Enough.  There is nothing here for me.  I drive into Monterey.
    Monterey is not where I want to be.  But here I am.  Arriving in Cannery Row, I circle around, drive the boardwalk and glance to my right–a bronze bust of John Steinbeck. I smile to myself. Brands I think.  Authorial brands.

    (to be continued)


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